Last week I discussed how the economic domination of western Europe (especially the UK and Germany) and the free movement of people throughout the EU has resulted in a demographic crisis in the East of the continent. (Young) Eastern Europeans are moving to the west for jobs and opportunities leaving behind countries such as Romania, Poland and Hungary which have to cope with population stagnation, fertility decline and a slump in the working aged population. Germany is the major beneficiary of this western movement of people (so much so that the consequences of its dire fertility rates have been largely ameliorated by immigration). But within Germany itself there is a repeat of the European phenomenon in miniature: the East of the country is depopulating while the Western part is keeping its head above water. Indeed, although the wall has come down, there is still a visible demographic divide between West and East Germany.
According to the Financial Times the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall have not been kind to the old German Democratic Republic. Not only has there been a collapse in birth rates, but there has also been an exodus of young workers to the west. Now, most of the region has so few women of childbearing age that there is little prospect of recovery, let alone reversal. Of 77 districts in eastern Germany, 41 are projected to lose at least 30 per cent of their working age population by 2035. In Western Germany, the comparable number of districts is two. There are only five Eastern towns or cities (Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Potsdam and Jena) that are expected to maintain their current working aged population. The district of Elbe-Elster is a district with perhaps the worst prognosis in Germany: it is expected to lose a quarter of its population by 2035 and 40 per cent of its working aged population in the same time frame. This is the continuation of a long decline: Elbe-Elster has only two-thirds the population that it did in 1989. Overall, East Germany is losing young workers who not only provide economic activity and taxes but who also rear the next generation of workers. The irony is that for a long time East Germany had too few jobs. This led to the young seeking employment elsewhere. Now, there are too few workers for the jobs available.
These economic and demographic conditions are some of the reasons for the AfD’s popularity in East Germany. The party argues that these regions have been abandoned by federal and regional governments and forgotten by Germany’s more thriving urban centres. And the AfD has some potent arguments to make. While the region is trying to stave off permanent decline, the policymakers in Berlin are going to phase-out coal mining and coal-fired power plants which will heavily hit the Eastern regions. Further poplitical traction has been gained by pointing to the billions of euros that were spent on the millions of migrants who have arrived in Germany in the last few years. The contrast can then be drawn between this generosity and the alleged neglect of the East and the people living there. Although many migrants were settled in rural, depopulated areas, this has not provided much of a solution to the east’s demographic crisis. Just like their native counterparts, young and economically active migrants also move to the cities where there are more jobs, family ties, and perhaps a more welcoming atmosphere. This means that while Germany’s overall population is bolstered by migration, its poorer eastern regions continue to suffer demographic decline.
The Iron Curtain has long since disappeared from the European continent. But the demographic and economic difference between East and West are still stark.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.